(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity

    Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to a violent end a decade ago, but the conflict’s unresolved aftermath continues to reverberate through political upheaval and unchecked attacks on minority groups, warns a UN report to be discussed in Geneva today.


    Sri Lanka has made “virtually no progress” on probing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the report, which is to be tabled at the Human Rights Council in the latest examination of the government’s stalled reconciliation promises.


    The 1983-2009 conflict largely pitted the military and political leadership, dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, against insurgent fighters from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority. But rights monitors and analysts say years of impunity for civil war-era abuses are also widening cracks elsewhere in Sri Lankan society.


    “The risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked,” the UN report warns.


    Last March, mobs of Buddhist demonstrators attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses in the central city of Kandy, fuelled by hate speech and rumours that had spread over Facebook and other social media. The government declared a state of emergency and temporarily shut down social media networks. The violence left two dead and hundreds of homes damaged, but no one has been convicted for their roles in the riots, despite dozens of initial arrests.

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities.”

    Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, calls Buddhist-Muslim tensions “a second fault line” that threatens to explode. Today’s report before the Human Rights Council calls last year’s violence a “very dangerous pattern” moulded by the failure to prosecute past abuses.


    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities,” the report warns.


    Stalled promises


    The civil war ended in 2009 when the military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers. Previous UN investigations found evidence of “gross violations” of international rights laws on all sides of the conflict, including thousands of civilian deaths in the military onslaught that ended the rebellion.


    In 2015, Sri Lanka’s current government pledged to accelerate reconciliation efforts and probe war-time abuses, but rights groups say promised reforms have been slow or non-existent. For example, a government body tasked with investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of missing people didn’t begin its work until last year, while plans for a national truth commission or to provide reparations for war-time abuses have also stalled.


    Rights groups draw a direct line between post-war impunity to continuing abuses and political crises that hamper the country today. For weeks last year, Sri Lanka was mired in political deadlock after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the violent military offensive that ended the war in 2009, to the position of prime minister.


    After weeks of protest, the impasse was only quelled after the country’s Supreme Court reversed Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, Rajapaksa resigned, and the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to office.


    Finding the missing


    Sri Lanka’s missing persons may be the most visceral example of the country’s lingering post-war trauma. It’s also one of the only instances of progress when it comes to the government’s reconciliation efforts.


    Rights groups say tens of thousands of Sri Lankans are missing since the 1980s. The government created the Office on Missing Persons in 2016, but it didn’t appoint commissioners or finance its budget until last year. The office’s role includes tracing missing relatives, investigating disappearances, and making recommendations on reforms and reparations to the government.


    But the office itself says it faces “distrust and scepticism” among the families it’s trying to help, fuelled by the “failure of successive state institutions to provide families with truth, justice and reparations”.


    Finding answers for families with missing relatives, the office said in its first report last year, “is taking place in a polarised context where even the need to address the issue of the missing and the disappeared is questioned by segments of society.”


    Transitional justice


    Four years after Sri Lanka’s promised reforms, the UN says the fledgling Office on Missing Persons is effectively the “only functioning transitional justice mechanism” in the country.


    The government has passed legislation to set up an office for reparations, but rights groups say it will be hampered by excessive government oversight and funding restrictions, leaving the body prone to political interference. A promised truth-finding commission has also seen years of delays.


    There has been even less progress on one of the most important – and contentious – measures: holding people accused of war crimes to account. Successive Sri Lankan governments have resisted pressure for an international or hybrid court to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.


    But there has also been little appetite to investigate such crimes in the country’s domestic courts. Instead, the UN report cites “worrying instances of political interference in the judicial or investigative process”, which raises questions about the justice system’s ability or willingness to investigate complex cases.


    Alleged crimes committed by Tamil Tiger fighters have also gone unaddressed. The rebel group is accused of civilian massacres, using suicide bombers, and recruiting child soldiers, but, like the broader reconciliation promises, Amnesty International says the government has also made “no progress” to address these abuses.


    “We have nothing to atone for”


    When President Sirisena was elected in 2015, he was seen as a reformist who promised to accelerate reconciliation between his country’s divided communities.

    "The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka... are weak minority voices in all communities.”

    But analysts say most reconciliation issues are intensely political, with nationalist Sinhalese forces, chief among them the would-be prime minister Rajapaksa, linking reparations and prosecutions to Sinhalese nationalist identity.


    “The sense among many Sinhalese among the military and among a lot of the political leadership is: ‘We beat the terrorists. Perhaps a few people suffered in the process, but we have nothing to atone for,’” said the Crisis Group’s Keenan.


    Even seemingly simple measures like vacating military-occupied land in former conflict areas, or releasing political prisoners, has been “grudging and slow”.


    Keenan says what’s missing is a government committed to changing long-held nationalist beliefs in both Sinhalese and Tamil communities.


    “The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka where all communities are equal and respected, where minority rights are enshrined in the constitution – those are weak minority voices in all communities,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, right, speaks with former president and current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa after the presentation of the 2019 budget to the parliament by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in Colombo on 5 March 2019. CREDIT: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)


    UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity
  • Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks

    Revived attempts to resolve one of the world’s least known conflicts will resume in Geneva this week as representatives from Morocco and the Polisario Front attend roundtable talks to discuss the future of Western Sahara, often referred to as the last remaining colony in Africa, and home to tens of thousands of refugees.


    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than *170,000 of Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawis now live as refugees in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province, although Morocco says the number is only around 40,000. The people of Tindouf are almost entirely dependent on international aid for food, water, education, and other necessities.


    Many are cut off from family members by a 2,700-kilometre wall that divides the two thirds of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco – which contains most of its settlements and natural resources – from the sparsely populated desert interior held by the Polisario.


    The result of the talks on Thursday and Friday could spell out the future of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, established as part of a 1991 ceasefire that promised a vote on self-determination within one year, including the option of full independence.


    The two parties met face to face for the first time in six years in December, sitting alongside Algeria and Mauritania in informal talks that the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, called a “first – but important – step” to rebuilding a fragile peace process that has yielded little since it began decades ago.


    Appointed envoy in 2017, Köhler, the former German president, has been working to achieve the political settlement that eluded his three predecessors. Each were unable to reconcile the positions of Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario, which considers itself the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people.


    Morocco partly annexed Western Sahara in 1975, following the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces. That violence pushed tens of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to refugee camps in western Algeria, from where the Polisario fought a guerrilla war backed by Algeria and Libya until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.


    Ruairi Casey/IRIN
    Wreckage from the 1975-1991 Saharan war sits outside a museum in the camps.



    Over a quarter-century later, MINURSO peacekeepers still have a presence in the Western Sahara, but the parties are no closer to a vote, which is often called the “final status referendum”. The conflict is mostly a cold one, although there have been occasional dust-ups, including heightened tensions when then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon referred to Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as an “occupation”.


    No other country recognises its claim over Western Sahara, but Morocco considers the territory an inviolable part of its national identity and has steadfastly refused to consider anything more far-reaching than greater autonomy within the kingdom. “Self-determination, in Morocco’s view, is done by negotiation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said after December’s talks. “A referendum is not on the agenda.”


    In April last year, the Security Council began to renew MINURSO’s mandate for six months, half the usual year. US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been a key player in recent efforts to jump-start diplomatic negotiations, has taken credit for the switch to six-month mandates, saying in December the change was intended to ratchet up the pressure on both parties to talk.


    Bolton, who worked as an assistant for then envoy James Baker between 1997 and 2000, has maintained a keen interest in the conflict, bolstered by a career-long disdain for costly UN missions and what some observers regard as sympathy towards the Polisario.


    In December, Bolton told an audience at the Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation that he was “frustrated” at the lack of progress made over the past years.


    “Ladies and gentlemen, 27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there?,” he said. “How can you justify that?”


    Future of talks


    The European Parliament’s approval last month of a trade deal with Morocco that included Western Sahara’s fishing waters added to the animosity between the parties, especially as it contravened a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year.


    The parliamentary green light infuriated the Polisario, which said the EU had violated international law and jeopardised the peace process.

    “27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there? How can you justify that?”

    But the key question in Geneva will be whether Morocco is willing to budge towards a power-sharing arrangement the Polisario might accept – from its current plan of keeping Western Sahara as part of the country, with some autonomy.


    Securing such movement is likely to be a challenge, Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University and an expert on the Western Sahara, told IRIN.


    Mundy said the current Moroccan plan “seems woefully insufficient to attract interest from Polisario, especially because it says nothing about a final status referendum”.


    But he added that Bolton’s shake-up could bring a welcome change of dynamic in a conflict that has changed little since the early 1990s.


    “The game might now be to see how much this actually works to get the parties to really discuss substantive issues on a political solution,” said Mundy.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the UNHCR figure was 90,000. This has now been updated)


    Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks
  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria


    The UN said it had received $6.97 billion in pledges at a Brussels donor conference for Syria this week, shy of the $8.8 billion it had asked for to aid Syrian refugees as well as those still in the country in 2019. While participants emphasised the need for a political solution to Syria’s war, now entering its ninth year, the uptick in violence in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province is a stark reminder that it is far from over. Conflict monitor Action on Armed Violence said Russian airstrikes in Idlib city killed 10 civilians and injured 45 on Wednesday; Russia said it was targeting weapons owned by the al-Qaeda linked group Tahrir al-Sham. A Russia-Turkey deal has so far been holding off a full-scale government offensive on the territory. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the audience in Brussels that such an offensive would “create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.


    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa


    Half a million people in Mozambique's fourth largest city of Beira were plunged into darkness when tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall late on Thursday night, knocking down trees and power lines and destroying homes. This follows a week of heavy rains and flooding across southeast Africa that has already killed at least 126 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. More than a million people have been affected in all. In Mozambique, the floods have already destroyed more than 5,700 homes, while in neighbouring Malawi, over 230,000 people are left without shelter. Both countries are prone to extreme weather events. In Mozambique, floods in 2000 claimed at least 800 lives and another 100 in 2015. In Malawi, the 2015 floods left at least 100 people dead and more than 300,000 others displaced.


    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes


    Broad economic sanctions against North Korea are disrupting humanitarian work and having a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens, a UN rights watchdog says. In a report to the Human Rights Council this week, the special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said aid programming continues to see significant delays due to UN and government-imposed sanctions. Banks, suppliers, and transport companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, leading to humanitarian supply chains breaking down. The US government has also imposed travel restrictions on its citizens and blocked the delivery of essential supplies like hospital equipment, he said. The UN this month called for $120 million in aid funding. But last year’s appeal was only one-quarter funded, and humanitarian aid only reached one third of the people targeted.


    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid


    The UN-brokered ceasefire deal for Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah suffered yet another blow this week, with a group of NGOs warning that there had been a “major outbreak of violence” in the city in the last few days. As we (and plenty of others) have pointed out, the Hodeidah agreement was meant to lead to further peace talks for the whole of Yemen. Don’t hold your breath. Just to the north of Hodeidah, in Hajjah province, recent airstrikes and renewed fighting have killed and injured civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside Hajjah in March alone, and humanitarians are having trouble accessing those who need help. As Nigel Tricks, East Africa and Yemen regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, put it in a Wednesday statement: “Whilst the eyes of the world are on Hodeidah, airstrikes and shells continue to rain down on civilians in other parts of Yemen, killing with impunity.”


    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency


    UNHCR has reversed a decision that could have seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar stripped of refugee status. Last year, the UN agency controversially began a review process to determine whether the refugees, originally from Chin State and other parts of western Myanmar, still required international protection. But UNHCR said this week that a “worsening security situation” in parts of Chin State “has affirmed that Chin refugees may still have ongoing international protection needs”. The agency also announced that it would stop its protection re-evaluation process for Chin refugees. In recent months, renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, have displaced thousands in Rakhine and southern Chin states, including more than 3,200 in Rakhine this month. But even before the latest violence, refugee rights groups say reviewing refugee protections for ethnic Chin was clearly premature. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network says there are more than 33,000 Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India.

    In case you missed it:


    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Cases of deadly pneumonic plague have emerged along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organisation said, including in the Congolese province of Ituri, where health teams are struggling to tackle an ongoing Ebola outbreak.


    Rwanda-Uganda: Tension is rising between East African neighbours. Uganda denies it harasses Rwandan citizens and backs rebels. It says Rwanda is blocking trade. Rwanda’s president says it will never be "brought to its knees". His Ugandan counterpart said a “troublemaker” (unnamed) “cannot survive”. Regional mediation efforts have begun.


    Sudan: Diseases including measles, dysentery, and pneumonia are spreading rapidly in Darfur's Jebel Marra area, according to a rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), that controls much of the territory. It called for outside assistance, saying dozens of people had already died from a shortage of medicines and medical staff.


    Venezuela: Week-long power outages crippled water supplies and cut off telephone and internet services to millions of Venezuelans already struggling with shortages of food and medicines. Amid reports of chaos and looting in the second city of Maracaibo, President Nicolás Maduro blamed “sabotage” and “American imperialism”. Others pointed to a bush fire and crumbling infrastructure.


    Yemen: The US Senate voted for a second time on Wednesday to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war. The resolution is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but President Donald Trump has vowed to veto should it reach his desk.


    Weekend read


    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace


    On 15 December, South Sudan marked five years of war – almost 400,000 people dead, millions displaced, but also signs a peace deal was taking hold, with more people returning home to rebuild shattered lives. Sceptics, embittered by too many false dawns, advised against hoping too hard. It seems they were right. Not only, according to our weekend read, has fighting resumed, but it resumed some time ago – locals in the troubled Yei region even accuse the government of covering up violence to keep up the pretence of control. Tens of thousands of people have been newly displaced, Sam Mednick reports, many of them inaccessible to aid groups. Without new ideas and renewed international engagement, more violence and displacement appear inevitable, according to the International Crisis Group. First test ahead: the formation of a unity government in May.


    And finally…


    ‘Toothless’ UN migration document becomes far-right rallying cry


    Propaganda scrawled by a gunman involved in killing at least 49 people in New Zealand today referred to the Global Compact for Migration. A non-binding international agreement that one expert called “toothless” has become a rallying cry for the far-right and white supremacists worldwide. The three-year UN negotiation process aimed to agree “safe and orderly” migration after arrivals to Europe increased in 2015. It also hoped to stem xenophobia in wealthy countries and reassure developing nations that the walls were not going up entirely. But nationalist politicians pulled out of the process, led by President Trump, claiming the document would pave the way to more immigration. The compact sparked fierce political debate in New Zealand, even though it commits no member state to do anything. One analyst told IRIN it “doesn’t actually do much”. Well, you’d be forgiven for asking now whether it does, but in all the wrong ways.

    (TOP PHOTO: Families have taken shelter in a new makeshift camp north of Idlib, fleeing violence in southern rural Idlib. CREDIT: Aaref Watad/UNICEF)


    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Hurdles on the road to peace in the Central African Republic

    The government of the Central African Republic and 14 of the most powerful armed groups operating in the country came together to sign a peace deal last month.

    If it goes to plan, the signatories will be responsible for leading the country into a new era of peace, allowing its incredible potential to blossom. However, failure will further solidify CAR’s place as one of the world’s most fractured states.

    Conflict in CAR – rooted in a series of ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic cleavages – has raged with waves of intensity since 2012, displacing millions of civilians and enabling countless crimes against humanity.

    Read more: Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live

    Despite committing an untold number of atrocities, the country’s armed groups have up until now offered the best chance of representation for much of the population that has long remained on the margins of political life. A successful transition will create a more representative government and secure a peaceful path forward.

    The Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation, signed in Khartoum in February, lays out a series of actions that the government, armed groups, and international and regional partners must undertake to fortify a lasting settlement.

    But to ensure its long-term success, involved parties should exercise caution when dealing with the most fragile of these issues, including the creation of a truth and justice commission, the use of amnesty and impunity, and the formation of an inclusive government.

    Justice and citizen involvement

    One of the most powerful critiques of the recent agreement is its failure to build off the 2015 Bangui Forum, which represented a much broader cross-section of Central Africans.

    While ultimately unsuccessful, the Bangui Forum more fully addressed issues of justice and reconciliation with much more input from victims and victim advocates than the current agreement.

    The pursuit of justice in the wake of conflict and human rights abuses, like those experienced by Central Africans, is critical to building a lasting peace.

    In order to facilitate the implementation of justice, the government is responsible for establishing a Commission on Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Reconciliation. This commission will seek to identify all victims of the conflict and to form a working group focusing on how best to preserve peace and find justice.

    In a post-conflict environment, justice can sometimes be given a lower priority in the face of the myriad pressures facing the peace process. This is even more likely in countries like CAR, given the extreme complexity of conflict dynamics, issues of territorial control, and long history of atrocities.

    But failure to give justice its due would cause untold damage to the psyche of the country while increasing the chance for violence to escalate again in the near future.

    That’s why CAR’s government must also continue educating its citizens on the terms of the agreement. It is important that Central Africans understand and agree with the terms, as an engaged public will contribute to its success. Additionally, citizen support of the agreement will strengthen democracy and build support for the government.

    Amnesty and impunity

    While the agreement recognises that impunity has contributed to the cycles of violence experienced by CAR, and even though it does not deliver general amnesty nor offer impunity to any armed group members, major concerns remain.

    One of the more problematic clauses of the agreement gives President Faustin-Archange Touadéra the power to grant amnesty in addition to his established ability to pardon convicted individuals. So, while not expressed in the agreement itself, there is still an opportunity for those who have committed acts of war to remain free from justice.

    Amnesty is the issue with the greatest potential to derail the agreement. If Touadéra is to grant amnesty to any members of armed groups, he should do so only as a last resort, and with the understanding that this action revictimizes his own citizens. Amnesty should not be given lightly and must be discussed in-depth and with guidance from the AU and the UN.

    If these powers are over-exploited to protect armed group members from justice, then war will inevitably return to the country.

    It is also important to continue building judicial capacity in CAR. The delivery of justice will depend a great deal on local and prefecture courts. With assistance from outside partners, CAR has made great strides in strengthening the judiciary over the last years, and these efforts must continue.

    Finally, international organisations who have a long history of prematurely moving on from crises in CAR, must do more. The people of the country deserve better than to be forgotten once again.

    Inclusivity and compromise

    Regional and international observers have hailed the agreement as a step toward a final peace. But less than a month after the agreement was signed, uncertainty emerged.

    Early in March, the CAR government published a list of new ministerial appointments with several new appointees coming from within the ranks of the armed groups. However, the government was keen to avoid undermining President Touadéra and his allies and selectively left out several groups.

    Acting against what they perceive as Touadéra failing to adhere to the terms of the agreements, several of the armed groups have taken action, including recalling their representatives and blocking a road in the west of the country. If the CAR government does not address this situation, it is unlikely that the agreement will move forward.


    If, however, the CAR government capitulates, it will have set a new pace for future negotiations. The current situation shows the precarious balance of bringing armed groups into the political fold while simultaneously protecting the interests of entrenched political actors.

    One of the most important actions for creating political inclusivity will be the transformation of armed groups into effective and legitimate political parties. The previous election, held in 2016, was the first democratic election in CAR since 1993. The next election will start in late 2020 and, in order to participate, these groups must meet agreed-upon standards.

    Peace is within grasp for the first time in many years. However, if participants and observers act recklessly, the numerous vulnerabilities could spell the undoing of the current agreement and lead to a resurgence of conflict in CAR.

    Hurdles on the road to peace in the Central African Republic
    “Failure to give justice its due would cause untold damage to the psyche of the country”
  • In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

    Once known as the country’s peaceful breadbasket, today the backdrop of rolling hills in South Sudan’s Equatoria region is contrasted by a string of ghost towns, abandoned shops, dilapidated houses, and roads littered with bullets and burnt-out cars.


    A fragile peace deal signed in September brought a few months of relief as fighting largely subsided across the country. However, since the beginning of the year violence has escalated between government forces and parties who refuse to accept the agreement – some of them calling it, according to rebel leader Thomas Cirillo, a “betrayal” of the South Sudanese people.


    Reports of abductions, ambush, rape, the burning and looting of property, and the killing of civilians have become rife in the last two months.

    Read more: The humanitarian toll of half a decade of war 

    Thousands of people are now displaced in Central Equatoria in what a February report from the South Sudan Civil Society Forum referred to as a “war on civilians”. Thousands more have fled across the border into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.


    Increased violence is also hindering the ability of aid groups to access vulnerable people, with many hiding in approximately 44 different areas in the forest and an estimated 23,000 people around the Central Equatoria town of Yei unreachable, according to the UN.


    “Until all parties stop armed conflict and adhere to the ceasefire, access is going to be compromised because it’s going to be too dangerous for humanitarians and beneficiaries to deliver and receive humanitarian assistance,” said Sarah Vuylsteke, up until recently the deputy head of access for the World Food Programme in South Sudan.


    Danger and hunger


    In the most dangerous country in the world for humanitarians, 20 percent of security incidents against aid workers have taken place in Central Equatoria. Humanitarians are concerned that if fighting continues the situation will get worse, especially when it comes to food security.

    ☰ Read more: The most dangerous country for humanitarians


    For the third year in a row, South Sudan is the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers, according to research by Humanitarian Outcomes. At least 112 aid workers have been killed since the start of the conflict, said the UN. Thirty-five humanitarian access incidents were reported in January and the number of bureaucratic impediments, such as delays at entry points and road blockages, nearly tripled from 2018.


    Mohammed Siryon, head of the field office in Yei for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told IRIN: “The recent conflict has completely stalled our movement.”


    Before December, aid groups were able to move freely in Yei. But since January they’ve been forced to travel with military escorts in armoured cars. For the first time since the war erupted in 2013, OCHA is using a bulletproof vehicle for travel outside of Yei, said Siryon. Only two humanitarian convoys have been able to leave the town since the start of the year.


    Humanitarian access works on trust, which involves knowing who to speak to and establishing relationships with the various groups, said the World Food Programme’s Sarah Vuylsteke. But recent fighting has created an unpredictable environment of shifting front lines, which makes it hard for aid groups to know who’s in charge in order to negotiate access.


    Last month, IRIN joined the second humanitarian mission outside of Yei this year, in which the UN tried to alert both the government and the rebels of their trip to Tokori village near the Congolese border. Less than 10 kilometers from Yei the convoy was stopped by one of the rebels’ pop-up checkpoints. Eight National Salvation Front, or NAS, rebel fighters emerged from the bush, surrounded the cars with AK-47s, and halted the procession.


    “We can’t trust you,” said the group’s young leader who referred to himself as “Madam Peter”. He scolded the mission for not alerting the rebels of their travel plans. After 20 minutes of tense discussions the rebels let the convoy through with a warning.


    The volatile security is compounded by weak telecommunications. Last year the main telecoms company operating in the Equatorias was shut down, making it nearly impossible to communicate. The rebels, who conduct guerrilla warfare from the bush, can only connect with satellite phones, yet few fighters have access to them and those who do struggle to keep the phones charged, said Siryon of OCHA.  


    At least one local aid group, the South Sudan Health Association, which operates in remote locations in the region, sends handwritten letters to rebel leaders. The notes, which detail the day the aid group wants to come and what they intend to bring are sent with locals on motorbike.


    “NAS trusts us because we respond when they write,” said Herbert Male, the organisation’s health supervisor.


    But even with assurances, humanitarians are still at risk. Last month Male and his team were ambushed by rebels while driving on the Yei-Juba road, forced out of their car and made to lie face down in the dirt until the commander set them free. In March 2018, Male was kidnapped for three weeks by opposition forces, threatened with death, and forced to do hard labour until the UN negotiated his release.


    Across South Sudan, more than six million people face extreme hunger, 45,000 of which are in catastrophe at risk of starvation, according to a report released in February by the UN and South Sudanese government.


    For its part, South Sudan’s government has downplayed the uptick in violence, insisting that the population influx in Yei is not a result of fighting but rather people’s desire to return home.


    “It’s a sign of peace that people are coming back,” said Yousto Baba Lukudu, deputy governor of Yei River state. In February, government officials in Yei hosted a peace rally in its central square, while in stark contrast across town thousands of desperate and hungry recently displaced people lined up to register for food aid.


    Several locals in Yei told IRIN that the government is trying to cover up the violence in order to appear in control and not be accused of violating the ceasefire.


    Almost six months into South Sudan’s peace deal, which has been riddled with delays, missed deadlines and violations, the momentum has stalled and the international community’s patience is fraying.


    In a statement last month, the US, the UK, and Norway – the so-called troika, which helped usher South Sudan to independence in 2011 – said it was “alarmed” at the escalating fighting around Yei and concerned that if the situation continues any progress made in implementing the peace agreement could be “irrevocably set back”.


    The Catholic Bishops of South Sudan released a statement last month saying they were extremely concerned about the state of the peace deal, noting that all parties were either still involved in active fighting or preparations for war. “There is a sense of hopelessness that this agreement, like so many before it, will not succeed,” it said.


    ‘I have nothing’


    On a trip to Central Equatoria at the end of February, IRIN spoke with dozens of civilians who blamed both the government and the rebels for the deteriorating situation.


    Joseph Yokuei, 65, had a wound on the back of his head from when armed men he identified as government soldiers beat, robbed, and detained him near the town of Yei.


    He was walking from his farm, 24 kilometres out of town, trying to bring food to his family when he was accosted along with 10 other people. “I have nothing now,” he said.


    Sam Mednick/IRIN
    Joseph Yokuei was beaten and robbed while trying to bring food to his family in the town of Yei.

    A month earlier, the family fled to Yei after government tanks attacked their village of Mukaya in search of rebels. They were among the hundreds of displaced people who sought refuge in an overcrowded church in Yei, where they were left for weeks without any food.


    Trapped between government forces and rebel fighters belonging to the National Salvation Front, or NAS – one of the non-signatory parties to South Sudan’s latest peace deal – almost 10,000 people now take refuge in five makeshift displacement sites on the outskirts of Yei.


    Thousands more have escaped to the bush. While government forces try to weed out rebels from within communities, civilians are bearing the brunt of the fighting, caught between warring parties with little access to food, shelter, or medicine.


    “It’s becoming very hard to survive out here,” said James Guer, also recently displaced.

    “If someone goes from the village to town, the [rebels] say you’re working for intelligence. If you go from town to the village, the government says you’re a rebel. I don’t trust anyone with a gun.”


    Seated in a plastic chair under a tree in Wuluturu, a neighbourhood on the edge of town where displaced people are living in abandoned houses, the community leader said he doesn’t care who’s in charge, he just wants to feel protected and free. Last month in the town of Morsak he said he found five bodies thrown into a toilet, and a young woman with her throat slit lying dead on the ground beside them.


    Scrambled response


    The fighting is also preventing people in and around Yei from cultivating their lands. Terrified civilians can’t access their land for fear of being killed or abducted by armed men.


    Since the Equatorias are known as South Sudan’s green belt, producing food for the rest of the country, there hasn’t been a robust emergency response in place when it comes to food aid.


    “There are only small food stocks in Yei,” explained Dara Elisha, programme manager for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, an international aid group operating in town. “Civilians and humanitarians are not equipped to deal with emergency here.”


    WFP conducted a registration last month for displaced people and started an emergency food distribution. So far 635 metric tonnes has been delivered, enough to last 9,000 people for one month, according to a spokesman for the UN’s food agency.


    Sam Mednick/IRIN
    Peter Yakui sobs while recounting the day government soldiers beat him after attacking his town of Morsak.

    Access constraints are also raising fears regarding the spread of Ebola from Congo. Central Equatoria borders both Congo and Uganda, and the International Organisation for Migration has only been able to set up eight out of 18 border screening sites due to instability. Two places along the Congolese border are completely inaccessible.


    Congo’s Ebola outbreak is the second deadliest in history and has been ongoing for more than six months in the country’s conflict-prone east. Responders face constant security threats, making it hard to get the virus under control in a busy region with porous borders.


    Read more: Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in central Africa 


    “We are concerned,” said Stuart Vallis, IOM’s Ebola preparedness coordinator in Yei. “We’re unable to get to the sites to train people and we can’t set up certain sites or get to remote areas.”


    The Equatorias were dragged into South Sudan’s crippling five-year civil war when renewed clashes erupted in the capital, Juba, in July 2016, displacing more than one million people in the region.


    Despite talk of peace among the country’s leaders, civilians here struggle to remain hopeful.


    Burying his face in his shirt, 14-year-old Peter Yakui recounts the day in February when government soldiers stormed his town of Morsak, beating him and threatening to kill him. He narrowly escaped, surviving for weeks in the forest living on wild fruit until he reached Yei. The young boy hasn’t seen his family since the attacks and doubts they’re alive.


    Wiping his tear-soaked cheeks with his sleeve, he begged to leave.


    “Take me away from here,” he said. “If I stay, I’ll never forget what happened.”



    “It’s becoming very hard to survive”
    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace
  • In militarised Mali, humanitarian responders say aid is an afterthought

    In the dust-caked town of Bankass in central Mali, Amadou Guindo waits to register for aid.


    Two weeks before, an armed group burned down the 41-year-old farmer’s village, destroying his granaries. The sack of rice and cooking oil he received, courtesy of the World Food Programme, will have to last and feed his entire family of nine.


    The Guindos are among the latest to flee conflict in central and northern Mali, where inter-communal violence, attacks by extremist groups, and counter-terrorism operations are triggering a worsening humanitarian crisis in the West African nation.


    As needs rise, aid groups say their ability to respond is being hamstrung by an increasingly militarised security landscape marked by confusion between military and humanitarian actors, shifting conflict dynamics, and funding gaps that are leaving displaced people like Guindo sick and starving.


    The International NGO Safety Organisation, or INSO, recorded 216 security incidents affecting humanitarians in Mali last year. Since 2016, the organisation said 10 aid workers have been killed, 31 injured, and 19 kidnapped.


    After seven years of conflict, some 3.2 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2019, the UN's emergency aid coordination body OCHA said. More than 123,000 people are now internally displaced across the country – three times as many as January last year.


    A man sits for the camera, a camel is tied to a tree in the background
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Amadou Guindo, a displaced Dogon farmer now living in a village near Bankass town.

    According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED, 2018 saw the highest civilian death toll in Mali since the eruption of conflict in 2012.


    “The needs are huge,” said Hassane Hamadou, Mali country director at the Norwegian Refugee Council.


    Militarised space


    Since a 2013 French-led military intervention that dislodged Islamist groups from key towns in northern Mali, the country has seen a flurry of security interventions including: a UN peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA, a French counter-terrorism force called Operation Barkhane, an EU military training mission and troops from five Sahelian states known as the G5 Sahel joint force, or FC-G5S.


    These international forces as well as the Malian army have been accused of stoking local conflicts, abuses against civilians, and failing to contain the violence. Islamist groups have reassembled in Mali’s desert north, expanded into the centre, and the violence has spilled over into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.


    Military forces have faced repeated attacks by Islamist groups, with more peacekeepers killed in Mali than any other active mission. Last month, three Guinean peacekeepers were killed during an attack on their vehicle in Siby, close to the capital, Bamako.


    In this increasingly crowded security landscape, humanitarians say attacks are creating risks for their staff in the field, who operate in close proximity to military forces. To mitigate the danger, aid programmes are frequently reduced or even suspended when military operations begin.


    “If a military force moves to a community, the armed groups follow,” said Tidiane Fall, Mali country director at Action Against Hunger. “There is a conflict between the military forces and radical armed groups, who lay improvised explosive devices on the road. Sometimes we have to take the same roads.”


    NGOs say the problem is compounded by poor coordination between humanitarian organisations, the UN peacekeepers, and other military actors. Dialogue between these groups is considered essential in emergency contexts to ensure military forces respect humanitarian activities and principles.


    But aid groups in Mali say military operations often come as surprise, and that their demand for “humanitarian space” is regularly ignored by officials from both MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane amid an atmosphere one senior aid worker described as “confrontational” and “unproductive”.


    “We tell them not to do operations because we have displaced populations and need to respond to their needs,” said the aid worker, who asked not to be named. “When we start to respond, they start doing military operations, forcing us to stop.”

    Life on a landfill for displaced Malians


    One of the most striking symbols of the current humanitarian crisis in Mali can be found in the capital, Bamako. Hundreds of Fulani herders who have been displaced by recent inter-communal violence in Mali’s central Mopti region have fled here, and are now living on a toxic rubbish dump next to a crowded livestock market. The residents complain of sickness and hunger. They say four children have died of sickness in the past few months. Their flimsy tents – covered with bits of plastic and cardboard scavenged from the piles of rubbish that surround them – are unlikely to survive the coming rains.

    Salimatha Diallo fled her village after an attack by an armed group left her husband dead.
    A herder who works at a livestock market next to the camp tends to his cattle.
    Djeneba Diallo sits inside a flimsy tent where five other members of her family are currently living.




    Jeopardising access


    To avoid attacks by extremists and other rebel groups, NGOs say they must carefully explain humanitarian principles of independence and neutrality to local communities. But these efforts are being hindered by military actors “using humanitarian interventions to build military acceptance,” said Jamal Mrrouch, head of mission at Médecins Sans Frontières.


    MINUSMA’s Quick Impact Projects, for example, include short-term interventions in healthcare, education, and food security among others area, while Operation Barkhane is also involved in a number humanitarian activities.


    Aid groups say these efforts to win “hearts and minds” increase the likelihood of association between military forces – who are party to the Mali conflict – and humanitarian actors, leaving staff in the field vulnerable to attacks.


    “It causes confusion in people’s minds and can jeopardise our access,” said Hamadou of the NRC.


    Further concerns have been raised about MINUSMA and Barkhane using white vehicles that are not clearly identified as military. It is intended as a security measure to avoid attracting attention, but humanitarians, who use the same or similar vehicles, have questioned its legality and the risk it poses to their staff.


    “It makes us the same targets,” said Fall. “They should have to identify as military.”


    Efforts to keep humanitarian and military actors separate face another challenge in the form of a new concept embraced by donors and the UN known as the “triple nexus”. The concept envisages development, peacemaking, and emergency relief programmes working more closely together.


    Harmless enough on paper, in Mali it has encountered strong resistance from some internationals NGOs who do not believe MINUSMA and other military actors should be involved in humanitarian relief and question what peace means for the different parties.


    “We have said we cannot accept the triple nexus without defining the peace pillar,” said Fall. “We want to know what it means for humanitarian actors and military actors.”


    Shifting conflict


    “As humanitarians we must stick to our principles. The only criteria is need.”

    While the worst of the violence in Mali was previously in the country’s desert north, today it is concentrated in the centre, where a new, grassroots Islamist insurgency has emerged, triggering cycles of inter-communal and militia violence.


    Aid groups say the varying dynamics of conflict in the north and centre are impacting humanitarians differently. In the north, NGOs and their staff are often victims of theft because of the perception they represent a certain degree of material wealth. Since 2017, most have stopped using their own vehicles and instead hire 4x4s from local communities.


    “Humanitarians are sources of wealth as they employ staff, contract with suppliers, and so on,” said Franck Vannetelle, Mali country director for the International Rescue Committee.


    Banditry is less of a problem in central Mali but local regulations – often motivated by military concerns – are having an impact on humanitarian operations. For example, last year the government announced a ban on motorbikes and pick-up vehicles in certain areas to prevent armed groups from moving freely.


    “This has affected the population reaching health centres, as well as humanitarian actors,” said Mrrouch. “Some villages are only accessible by motorbikes.”

    Inter-communal violence between Fulani and Dogon armed groups in the Mopti region of central Mali has also forced NGOs to rethink which staff members they hire and send into the field, and has created access problems when moving from one community to the next, according to NRC’s Hamadou.


    “There are some instances where armed people are reluctant when they see you supporting a particular community,” he said. “As humanitarians we must stick to our principles. The only criteria is need.”


    Funding concerns


    While donors are showing increased interest in central Mali as needs rise, overall funding for the country is “stagnating”, said Paul Reglinski, Mercy Corps deputy country director for programmes.


    Mali’s 2018 UN humanitarian response plan was just 54 percent funded. Last November, NRC issued a statement claiming more than 34,000 displaced people were being left without humanitarian assistance. The UN appeal for 2019 is currently just 3.3 percent funded.

    “This year we are very worried about the ability to finance the humanitarian response plan,” said Fall.


    “It is difficult to find anywhere safe. I have lost hope."

    The general feeling is that the bulk of the international community’s money and energy will continue going towards military efforts against extremist groups – to the detriment of aid agencies and the communities they support.


    “All of this securitisation, and the daily life of the population doesn’t change,” said Mrrouch.


    In areas like Bankass, neither the national army nor the UN peacekeepers nor any other foreign forces appear able to stop the escalation of violence – leaving people like the farmer Guindo, and thousands of others, displaced, dependent on aid, and unsure where to go next.


    “It is difficult to find anywhere safe,” Guindo said. “I have lost hope."



    “When we start to respond, they start doing military operations, forcing us to stop”
    In militarised Mali, humanitarian responders say aid is an afterthought
  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

    Rising conflict and insecurity are accelerating forced displacement across the Sahel, and a new upsurge of violence along the Mali-Niger border has left 10,000 people in "appalling conditions" in improvised camps in Niger's Tillabéri region. The UN says IDP numbers in Mali have tripled to around 120,000. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, has allocated $4 million to assist 70,000 people who have fled their homes in just two months in Burkina Faso. Around 4.2 million people – a million more than a year ago – are currently displaced across the Sahel due to a combination of armed attacks by extremist militants, retaliation by regional militaries, and inter-communal violence.

    All NGOs are not equal, especially when it comes to risk

    When it comes to safety, security, and risk, power differences between local and international NGOs can lead to “perverse incentives”, according to the summary of a new report. Local NGOs often do the last mile of humanitarian work, especially in insecure situations. They are funded by much bigger INGOs that act as donors. But while INGOs have sophisticated risk management (10 cooperated with this study by US-based NGO alliance InterAction), their downstream “partners” are not treated the same. The physical safety of local NGO staff, for example, gets much less attention than compliance with financial and counter-terrorism regulations. The report spells it out: INGOs “put a far greater emphasis on the risks of their local partners as opposed to the risks to them.” The study includes case studies from Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as recommendations based on examples of improved practice found during the research.

    First drought, now floods

    Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 70 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with numbers expected to rise as on-the-ground assessments trickle in. Parts of Afghanistan are particularly hard hit, with nine provinces reporting displacement or damage to homes and agriculture. Some 21,000 people need aid in the southern province of Kandahar alone, according to the UN. Aid groups worry the situation could worsen with continued rain and snowfall expected. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have been grappling with severe drought over the last several months, and heavy rainfall can increase the threat of floods on degraded land. An El Niño weather pattern could also bring more rainfall, combining with the drought impacts to make floods “more ruinous” this year, according to the UN. Which makes this a good time to read more on the complications of responding to emergencies in conflict-hit Afghanistan.

    Algeria rising

    Mass protests triggered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for re-election in April were not quelled by the announcement that he “would not be a candidate” in future elections (after next month’s, that is). Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, was paralysed by a stroke in 2013, and does not speak in public. Demonstrators are speaking out about corruption, poverty, and poor social services – all issues causing young Algerians to attempt the journey to Europe, according to Omar Belchouchet, editor of an independent Algerian newspaper. “They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” he said. According to the UN, 7,300 Algerians arrived on Europe’s shores in 2018, up from 5,900 in 2017.

    An international treaty to protect women?

    Today is International Women’s Day, with events taking place across the globe. But this week also saw the launch of the campaign for an Every Woman Treaty, which would seek to limit violence against women the same way existing international agreements limit landmines and smoking. It’s a bold step, but systemic gender inequalities mean it’s more than just direct violence – like rape as a weapon of war – that the humanitarian sector needs to worry about. Women are disproportionately affected, whether they’re subsistence farmers most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, people displaced during conflict, or those abused by the very aid workers who are supposed to be helping them in times of crisis. Although women are also often on the front lines of disasters, leading the response in their communities, they still face barriers to inclusion. Explore our recent reporting to learn more about some of the key humanitarian issues facing women and girls today.

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

    British TV audiences have a week’s blizzard of jokey fundraising to come, as Comic Relief gears up for a “Red Nose Nose Day” telethon. Almost as predictable as the line-up of UK comedians is controversy about its video packages from projects abroad. The use of famous Britons to frame field-based segments is accused of being sentimental, simplistic, and disrespectful. This year, early critics included online activists No White Saviours and British member of parliament David Lammy. Comic Relief responded by saying that “people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.” The accusations and counter-arguments have a familiar feel: last year, Comic Relief’s segment with musician Ed Sheeran came under fire. Thinking you’d like someone to explain the cycle of critique and outrage from all sides? Take a look at  this blog, from communication academic Tobias Denskus of Malmö University: “White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps.”

    In case you missed it

    Central African Republic: Four of the 14 rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the government have reportedly withdrawn in protest of a newly formed government, which they believe is not representative. The fragile agreement was forged after negotiations in the Sudanese capital last month. For an inside look at efforts to keep the peace in CAR, check out our three-part special report.


    Iraq: Rather than considering children affiliated with so-called Islamic State as victims in need of rehabilitation, authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have charged hundreds of young people with terrorism offenses because of affiliation with the group, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report released on Thursday, it said confessions are often obtained through torture.


    North Korea: The UN this week called for $120 million in funding for North Korea, warning of potential food shortages and the unintended impacts of sanctions blocking humanitarian aid. Nearly 11 million people in the country are considered undernourished – the root of health problems for many North Koreans. New reports suggest North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy has been imploding, with huge declines in exports in 2018.

    Syria: The UN says that as of 3 March, 90 people had died either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, two thirds of them children under five. The camp’s population has swollen to more than 62,000 – 90 percent of them women and children – as thousands of people flee the last IS territory in the country. More than 5,200 new arrivals were reported by the UN between Tuesday and Thursday.

    US-Mexico: US officials say February was the busiest month for apprehensions at its southern border with Mexico in more than a decade – more than 76,100 people in total. The vast majority were families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rise is unusual, but still well below the highs of the 1990s and 2000s when as many as 1.6 million people were apprehended annually.


    Weekend read


    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh


    The extent to which specific extreme weather events – and related humanitarian disasters – can be attributed to climate change can be a contentious subject and remains a matter of some debate. But try telling that to rice farmers in Bangladesh’s northeast. They have been left bewildered by a succession of warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains. Our weekend read offers a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings can become a reality: village by depleted village; family by displaced family. Scientists in December published research that showed that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” in Bangladesh during March and April 2017. Farmers like Shites Das in the northeastern village of Daiyya are in no doubt. "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das says. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    And finally


    Somali Night Fever


    Check out this film for a different take on Somali refugees and for a rare glimpse into a Mogadishu of the 1970s and 1980s, when trendy nightclubs were graced by “musicians rocking afros and bell-bottom trousers”. When civil war erupted in Somalia in the 1990s, it separated friends and families, and destroyed a once cosmopolitan way of life. As people fled, they took their culture and music with them. As Somalia changed, so the sounds of funk, disco, soul, and reggae that once filled the airwaves also fell silent. Decades later, many Somalis still live in exile – some resettled in other countries, others in refugee camps. Meet Habib, now in Sweden, and Abdulkadir, living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya: two former band mates and best friends. Separated by the war, they remain wonderfully united by their love of music, and by their memories of a bygone era.

    (TOP PHOTO: An informal refugee settlement of Garin-Wazam in Diffa region, Niger. CREDIT: Vincent Tremeau/UNICEF)


    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead

    For 48 hours in mid-December, the remote fishing and farming region of Yumbi some 400 kilometres north of Kinshasa on the banks of the Congo River became the scene of a massacre.


    According to the UN Human Rights Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least 535 people were killed in the town of Yumbi and surrounding villages when members of the Batende community attacked the Banunu, a different ethnic group.


    More than two months later, entire villages are still deserted. Nearly 30,000 people remain displaced, many on islands along the Congo River, as well as in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.


    The humanitarian needs are dire, and aid groups warn things could get worse.


    Read more: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear


    In January, photojournalist Alexis Huguet visited Yumbi to document the aftermath of the massacre, and found that tensions remain high between the two communities. Despite ongoing investigations into the massacre by the military prosecutor's office and the UN Human Rights Office, the attackers are still at large.


    For the survivors, the trauma and violence of those 48 hours in December remain with them. As a result, many continue to live displaced, in difficult conditions, rather than return to destroyed homes.

    Mass graves


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    "We were both trying to escape,” said Lanjy Nguta (above), a survivor from the village of Bongende, standing beside the spot where his friend's body now lies, simply covered with dirt. “Instead of following the same path as me, my friend turned. In the meantime, the Batende arrived; they caught him and killed him.”


    The UN says at least 339 people are confirmed to have been killed in Bongende on Monday, 17 December. Hundreds of bodies – burned, mutilated – littered the alleyways of the town. After 10 days, Congolese Red Cross teams finally arrived on the scene. For several days they dug mass graves to bury the bodies.


    The UN Human Rights Office in Congo, which conducted an investigation in Yumbi territory in January, reported that it had found "more than 50 mass graves and individual graves", many of them in Bongende.


    The uncounted dead


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN


    On 16 January, one month after the attacks, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva issued a press release reporting that 890 people were killed in Yumbi territory during two days in December. At the beginning of February, they returned to a figure of 535 documented cases of people killed.


    But according to the testimonies of survivors recorded by IRIN, the bodies of a large number of people killed were thrown into the river. These are unlikely ever to be recovered and not included in the official count.


    In Bongende and the town of Yumbi, there are still skeletons and human remains that have not been buried. In the photo above, you can see the clothes and bones of a child lying in the courtyard of a house in Bongende.


    Two months after the killings, Bongende is still deserted. The inhabitants do not want to return, as their assailants are still at large, living in the surrounding villages.


    Avoiding new trauma


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    In Bongende, almost nothing is left, as the two returning Banunu survivors found above: destroyed houses, mass graves, human remains, a few naval soldiers guarding the port, and a deafening silence.


    "It is important that the return of the population is not forced,” Nicholas Tessier, a psychologist who worked for Médecins Sans Frontières with both communities in Yumbi, told IRIN.


    “If people return too quickly to their destroyed homes, or to the place where they have seen loved ones killed, it can really have an impact on their mental health,” he said. “They will have to face the consequences of recent violence and this will generate quite strong emotions, perhaps even a re-emergence of trauma symptoms.”


    Surviving in the middle of the Congo River


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    Opposite Yumbi, the Congo River is nearly 10 kilometres wide. From Yumbi, it takes almost an hour-and-a-half in a motorised canoe to get to this spot (above) on Moniende islet.


    To escape the attacks in Yumbi, Bongende, and another village, Nkolo, thousands of Banunu made the journey to Moniende and other islets on canoes. Some paddled with their hands.


    MSF said living conditions on the islets – which the villagers only usually inhabit during the fishing season when the river level drops – are particularly precarious.


    They said their partially built huts do little to protect them from rain, the coldness of the night, or the wind, with malaria in the coming rainy season a particular concern.


    Left for dead


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    "I came across the attackers on my way home [in Yumbi town]. They shot me and hit me with arrows. I fell, and then they beat me up," said Abyssine Miniunga Bonkita, holding her child in her arms (above) on Moniende islet.


    "One of the assailants wanted to leave, but the other wanted to shoot me again to finish me off once and for all,” Bonkita said. “Finally they gave up to save their ammunition and because they thought I was already dead. They also burned down my house. I dragged myself to where I found my relatives. When the clashes stopped, I was taken to the hospital."


    Bonkita and her family then took refuge on Moniende islet, where they sleep piled up together in a hut made of plastic sheeting and wooden sticks.


    Safety across the river


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    While many of the tens of thousands of displaced people took refuge on river islets around Yumbi, 16,000 of them crossed the river into Congo-Brazzaville. Most continue to live as refugees, largely in the Makotimpoko (pictured above) and Gamboma districts.

    At the time of the massacre, the rest of the country was focused on preparations for Congo’s long-delayed general elections, which finally took place on 30 December. Not many knew what was happening in Yumbi.


    After the first groups fled, bits of information began trickling in from Congo-Brazzaville: news of inter-communal clashes, dozens of people wounded, and thousands fleeing in canoes.


    Humanitarian needs


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    Young Limbanda Bompinda (centre) is one of the thousands who managed to escape the attack on Bongende for the safety of Congo-Brazzaville.


    For those who took refuge across the river, local authorities say the needs are tremendous, including healthcare, shelter, food, and psychological support. But the area many fled to is landlocked, difficult to access, and the humanitarian response has therefore been slow.


    Some refugees, like Bompinda and her mother, take the risk of crossing the river by canoe to collect food – including manioc leaves, plantain bananas, and safou fruits – before returning to Congo-Brazzaville.


    Communities cut off


    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    While almost all the casualties of the massacre were Banunu, the humanitarian crisis that has followed the attacks is affecting both communities.


    Displaced Banunu no longer have access to the fields, mainly in the areas inhabited by the Batende. On the other hand, the Batende no longer have access to Yumbi market, located on the banks of the Congo River. With roads almost impassable (see picture above), this means they’ve also lost access to the main gateway for goods going to and from the capital, Kinshasa.


    Hundreds of Batende families – who, according to several witnesses, fled their homes in Yumbi in apparent anticipation of the killings – have also taken refuge in the surrounding forests and fields, leaving them vulnerable to disease.


    (TOP PHOTO: A member of the Congolese naval forces walks along the deck of a boat on the Congo River weeks after the massacre in Yumbi. CREDIT: Alexis Huguet)



    Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead
    Second in two-part series on the 16 and 17 December massacre in Yumbi. The <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2019/03/04/briefing-after-massacre-congo-Yumbi-little-aid-plenty-fear">accompanying briefing</a> looks in more detail at humanitarian needs.
  • As peace efforts falter, violence in central Mali spirals further out of control

    Housseyni Diallo thought the smoke and flames he saw were from an early morning bonfire lit in the final revelry of a New Year’s Eve celebration. He was wrong: armed men were burning down parts of his village, in central Mali’s Mopti region.


    Diallo, a Fulani herdsman, hid in an abandoned house for safety, peering occasionally through the window as swarms of men from an ethnic Dogon armed group went on a rampage through the community; killing 37 men, women, and children, burning huts and granaries, and depriving villagers of their means of survival.


    “We never thought something like this could happen,” said the herdsman.


    The massacre – in a village called Koulogon – was one of the deadliest, most gruesome episodes in a year-long conflict between Dogon and Fulani armed groups that has enveloped this region of roughly two million people, emptying villages and leaving hundreds dead and wounded, according to the International Federation of Human Rights.


    In mid-February, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, said it is investigating two new attacks on Fulani villages in the region. In both cases armed men killed civilians and set fire to “huts, granaries, and livestock”, the UN said. Dogon communities are also facing attacks, according to local officials and displaced people interviewed by IRIN.

    The recent wave of violence comes despite stepped-up efforts to end the unrest here, including peace agreements between communities, ceasefire commitments, airstrikes by French forces, presidential visits, and a government-backed demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration, or DDR, scheme that has just got going.


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    A displaced Fulani herder taking refugee in Bankass town.

    But the efforts have not been enough to mend relations between central Mali’s different communities, which have been soured by the presence of al-Qaeda linked jihadists, whose recruitment of Fulani herders has fuelled distrust with the Dogon in particular.


    Read more: New violence eclipses Mali's plans for peace


    Armed groups on both sides are imposing sieges on villages, restricting access to healthcare centres, local markets, and fields, and triggering hunger and sickness among residents.


    The conflict is responsible for driving the highest death toll in Mali since the outbreak of war in 2012, while the number of internally displaced people has tripled since January last year to 123,000, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA. More than 50 percent of those fleeing their homes are from Mopti.


    “Continuous displacement is taking place,” said Ute Kollies, OCHA’s head of office in Mali.


    Northern roots


    The violence in the centre has roots in a longer-standing crisis in northern Mali, where separatist Tuareg rebels joined by Islamist militants seized large parts of territory in 2012 following a military coup in the capital, Bamako.


    A 2013 French-led intervention pushed the Islamists back as they tried to march south. But they have since regrouped and expanded from the desert north into Mali’s fertile centre, turning Mopti into the country’s deadliest region.


    Known by some as the Macina Liberation Front, or FLM, the militants here have gained ground by recruiting from among the region’s Fulani community, a pastoralist group who have been disadvantaged by government and development programmes that favour agriculture.


    Many hoped the killing of their charismatic leader, Amadou Koufa, by French forces in late November, would halt the group’s expansion and quell the violence. But last Thursday a new video surfaced suggesting Koufa is in fact still alive.


    An “accelerated” DDR programme for the centre, launched by Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga in December, also raised hope of a resolution to the conflict, with 5,000 combatants registered as of January, including fighters from Dogon and Fulani self-defence groups.


    Meanwhile, international NGOs and Mali’s Ministry of Social Cohesion and Reconciliation are implementing inter-communal dialogues that have resulted in a string of local peace agreements between members of both groups.


    But on the ground the situation is deteriorating. In Koulogon, witnesses describe a brutal, premeditated attack involving up to 100 traditional Dogon hunters known as “Dozos”, supported by men from local Dogon villages. Local officials and witnesses said the attack was rooted in a decades-old grudge over land ownership. High-profile Fulani families were shot dead and then burnt inside their houses. Bodies were mutilated.


    “Now we are suffering,” said the herdsman, Diallo. “We don’t even have pots to cook.”


    In nearby Minima Kanda, 60-year-old imam Saydou Sidibe said his small hamlet was attacked at roughly 4am in mid-February by “young Dogon from local villages”. When soldiers finally secured the area, he returned to find five bodies on the ground – including his niece Weloore – and his livestock stolen.


    “They came to take our wealth and take our land,” he said. “Everything our ancestors built for us.”

    Hunters lose control


    Many lay the blame for these attacks on Dan Na Ambassagou – the main Dogon self-defence group in the region. The group is mostly composed of ramshackle fighters with artisanal weapons and traditional hunting uniforms. But UN officials say the group has received support from prominent figures in Bamako and may contain fighters from abroad.


    An old rifle leans against a tree
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    A hunting rifle used by the new Dogon self-defence group near Bankass town.

    The group’s national coordinator, Mamoudou Goudienkile, said they have not attacked any Fulani villages since signing a unilateral ceasefire agreement last September. A retired general in the Malian army, Goudienkile said his men are cantonned at more than 30 sites across Mopti, awaiting DDR.


    “We are not fighting,” said Goudienkile.


    But UN officials say that’s unlikely and that Dan Na Ambassagou does not have control over all Dogon fighters in the region in any case. The attacks in Koulogon and Minima Kanda suggest many are now acting independently, taking their cues from village chiefs and responding to the needs of their local communities as and when they arise.


    Read more: “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict


    “We can be attacked at any moment,” said the leader of one self-described “independent” Dogon self-defence group, which formed three months ago in a village near Bankass town.


    That fear is not misplaced. Dogon villages are also being attacked and civilians displaced at an alarming rate over the past weeks and months. Some locals blame Fulani self-defence groups, others blame Islamist militants, or a combination of both.

    Amadou Guindo, 41, a Dogon farmer from Boila, 67 kilometres from Bankass, said armed Fulani men “mixed with jihadists” entered his village a few weeks ago telling every Dogon to leave. “They said: ‘the Dogon have chased us away in Koro (an administrative region next to Bankass), so we won’t let you settle here’.”

    “Now we are suffering. We don’t even have pots to cook.”

    Guindo said the villagers decided to stay put because “we have been here for 30 years”. But six days later the armed men returned, shooting wildly at civilians and burning down houses and granaries. Three people lost their lives, Guindo said, among them a young woman shot dead in a chicken coop, and Guindo’s own son, 16-year-old Malick.


    “We lost everything,” Guindo said.


    Villages under siege


    Both Fulani and Dogon communities describe siege-like conditions, with armed men preventing civilians from leaving their villages to access local markets, fields, and healthcare centres. Many are falling sick.


    At the nutrition ward of Bankass hospital three-year-old Fousseyni Ziguime lay on a gurney, a feeding tube through his nose and a tattered pink cloth covering his skeletal frame.


    For three months, his mother said armed men left her too afraid to leave the village and seek medical attention. Instead, she relied on traditional medicine that has made matters worse. Now her son has malaria, a respiratory infection, and severe acute malnutrition. He can barely open his eyes.

    “We don’t have a lot of hope,” said Aminata Djire, the nurse looking after him.


    A young child with medical equipment on a bed
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Fousseyni Ziguime, a malnourished child, at Bankass hospital.

    To end the conflict, analysts say the government must address local grievances, particularly those that are turning Fulani herders into the hands of jihadists. This includes tackling state corruption, military abuses, and economic policies that work to the disadvantage of pastoralists.


    For now the government’s priority lies in convincing more fighters to join the DDR programme. But the process will likely take time, and will not include Islamist militants who, like their counterparts in northern Mali, are not party to any peace initiatives.


    “They will never come to us,” said Oumar Dicko, chairman of the DDR commission in Mopti.


    The fear is that so long as Islamist groups remain present in Mopti, Fulani communities will continue to be held collectively responsible and the cycle of retribution and revenge will go on.


    The new self-defence group in the village near Bankass certainly has no intention of disarming. During an interview with IRIN last week, the group’s leader – who asked not to be named – received a panicked phone call from one of his fighters. The fighter was monitoring activity in neighbouring villages and said armed Fulani men were mobilising to attack them.


    Checkpoints were quickly set up around the village’s perimetre and a motley crew of local youth armed with sticks and hunting rifles was assembled. In the end their presence proved enough to prevent an attack, the leader said later that day, but removing the fear everybody here is living with will be a much taller order.


    “We are all afraid,” he said.



    “We can be attacked at any moment”
    As peace efforts falter, violence in central Mali spirals further out of control
  • The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home

    Under pressure to go home, Burundian refugees in Tanzania face two bad options: return to face social and economic hardship and possible rights violations; or remain in chronically under-resourced camps that restrict their opportunities.


    With both governments confirming plans to return 116,000 Burundians by the end of 2019, it’s crunch time for the international community if it wants to ensure returns are truly voluntary and offer returnees the level of support they will need to reintegrate properly back in Burundi.


    More than 400,000 people fled Burundi, most into neighbouring Tanzania, following violent unrest and repression that accompanied 2015 elections, which saw former rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza returned to power for a controversial third presidential term.


    Limited repatriations began in 2017, but funding shortages mean the process has so far been little more than an offer of free transport back across the border, with a return package of food, non-food items, and cash that doesn’t even last the three months it’s expected to cover.


    Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.

    Despite this, some 62,000 Burundians have already chosen to go back home. But returnees interviewed by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) said their decisions were driven by dire camp conditions coupled with the risk of abuse if they ventured outside.


    Back in Burundi, the lack of support to reintegrate refugees threatens to hinder their chances of getting food on the table and starting their lives afresh. If past failures are any indication, a botched repatriation on this scale could fuel new conflict and further waves of displacement.


    With elections due to take place next year, some of those interviewed by IRRI were fearful that political tensions will start building again and that renewed violence will erupt.


    Burundi appears to be calm for now, but this shouldn’t hide the fact that the government has restricted political space and refuses to engage in a regional dialogue with opposition parties. Ensuring a properly supported return process has never been more important.


    Problems back home

    A new report, based on 75 interviews IRRI conducted with Burundian returnees, their neighbours and local authorities in August and November last year, finds that many are stuck in a highly precarious situation.


    Several people told us they found the repatriation process slow. Others felt there was insufficient information to guide them through it, despite several systems put in place by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Tanzania to inform refugees about the procedure.

    After the rations and money in the return package ran out, people told us support was limited. Given that many who fled were already amongst the most vulnerable, the daily struggle to feed their families had only increased since they returned.  


    Some were relying on the help of their neighbours or local authorities. But there were occasional tensions too as some who didn’t go into exile resented the fact that returnees received support – however insufficient.


    Returnees said they had been accused of being opposition supporters and some reported being threatened – even physical abused – by the ruling party’s notorious Imbonerakure youth wing militia.


    Another core issue was access to land. Previously unresolved land disputes from prior repatriations continued to cast a shadow over the return process.


    Many of those interviewed were landless and dependent on the meagre return package to secure a place to live. Ensuring equitable access to land is critical, not only to give people access to livelihoods, but also to a wider sense of belonging.


    More and longer support needed


    Effective reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people is a big challenge for countries recovering from conflict.


    In Burundi, the 2015 exodus reversed a repatriation process between 2002 and 2010 in which approximately half a million refugees returned following a number of peace agreements, including the Arusha Accord, which ended the country’s civil war.

    But while the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep. The much harder and time-consuming work of genuine reintegration of returnees didn’t fit well with the short attention spans, or at least budgets, of the government and UN agencies.


    Something similar seems to be taking place now. While most refugees don’t want to return to Burundi because they know they’ll be returning to a volatile political situation and economic hardship, many feel they have no better choice.


    While the returns made it look like Burundi had found peace, stability only went skin deep.

    As the IRRI report demonstrates more fully, the situation faced by Burundian refugees in Tanzania is dire – many are abused when leaving the camps to look for firewood or menial jobs to supplement the insufficient humanitarian assistance.


    Burundi and Tanzania both want the refugees to return. Tanzania is tired of hosting them, fed up with aid that is sporadic and unreliable, while Burundi’s government wants to portray an image of a peaceful country. UNHCR and international donors, however, have been more reluctant to support returns, leading to friction.


    The repatriation process, already painfully slow, was completely halted in November when Burundi suspended international NGOs that refused to adopt ethnic quotas. Some NGOs have been able to reopen since, but others have left the country. Those refugees who were eventually assisted by UNHCR had to lower their expectations.


    Repatriation is a complex, long-term process that must be adequately supported.


    It must take into consideration the humanitarian and development needs of both returnees and the communities to which they are returning, and it needs to grapple with the underlying tensions that created the context for displacement in the first place.  


    But there seems to be lack of recognition – or, at least, of action – by the Burundian government and international actors in this regard.


    In a context in which displacement has had terrible consequences for the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people, recognising repatriation as a long-term endeavour is key to breaking the cycles of conflict and displacement that have plagued Burundi’s recent history.


    Globally, repatriation is being pushed as the most desirable and “durable solution” to end displacement. It is therefore vital that the international community ensures that Burundians return voluntarily and are sufficiently supported and funded to reintegrate effectively.


    (TOP PHOTO: A camp in Tanzania for Burundian refugees. CREDIT: Anouk Delafortrie/ECHO)

    The trouble with plans to send 116,000 Burundian refugees home
    Hovil and Van Laer are Senior Researcher and Programme Director, Prevention and Resolution of Exile, with the International Refugee Rights Initiative, which works to inform and improve responses to the cycles of violence and displacement that are at the heart of large-scale human rights violations.

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